Weeks before the pandemic shut down the country, Robin Christenson woke up in the middle of the night. Initial fears about the virus had started to materialize, and she was worried. Then she came across an article about how there was a shortage of hand sanitizer. Christenson, one of the owners of Blinking Owl, a craft distillery in California, saw an opportunity for her businesses to grow.
“So the next day, I ran to work and I sat down with my head distiller and I said, ‘Can we make hand sanitizer?’” Christenson said.
In March, Americans panicked. They rushed to grocery stores, stockpiling everything from toilet paper to baking yeast, hoping to soothe their anxieties and prepare for the unforeseeable future. Hand sanitizer was one of the most in-demand items, with sales spiking 1,400 percent as early as January. While the Food and Drug Administration has said that hand-washing with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of infection, the disinfectant quickly became “something of a Holy Grail,” prompting worldwide shortages.
Amid the growing demand for hand sanitizer, the FDA waived certain regulations for its production, paving a new way for the industry by allowing nontraditional manufacturers like distilleries and perfumers to produce their own sanitizers. For some business owners, that has meant a fast-growing new revenue stream.
But the eased restrictions have also come with complications — just as states across the country are reopening, creating fresh need for sanitation. Although nowhere near the peaks of March, discussion around hand sanitizer is once again in the news, particularly around strange smells, faked products, and recalls.
“They pinky-promised to follow the rules, but guess what? Some of them didn’t follow the rules,” said US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) consumer watchdog Teresa Murray of new hand sanitizer manufacturers.
Those rules include what can be put into the formula. Some manufacturers have added methanol to their hand sanitizer formulas, which is toxic if it is absorbed through the skin and deadly if swallowed: “Methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, or death,” said an FDA press release. “Although people using these products on their hands are at risk for methanol poisoning, young children who ingest these products and adolescents and adults who drink these products as an alcohol (ethanol) substitute are most at risk.”
“There is some irony here that you’re using hand sanitizer to try and be safer, and in some cases, it can actually be making you sick,” Murray said. The US PIRG is advising people to stick with brand-name hand sanitizers in order to avoid contamination, or choose brands that manufacture other hygiene products like shampoo. Murray also suggested avoiding discount stores.
There have also been complaints about odd-smelling hand sanitizers (due to lack of carbon filtration), excessive stickiness, and false claims by manufacturers. The FDA has accused one Iowa-based hand sanitizer company of promising that its sanitizer could “mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19.”
“If the FDA doesn’t get a tighter grip on this going forward as things reopen, we could end up seeing many more problems,” Murray said.
Many of the toxic sanitizers on the FDA’s do-not-use list are manufactured outside the US, largely in Mexico. But recently, a hand sanitizer made by a Tennessee distillery was labeled toxic.
While hand sanitizers that contain methanol have become an increasing problem since the FDA’s restrictions were eased and new players entered the market, there are many businesses and distillers committed to producing safe and usable hand sanitizers.
Linda Evans O’Connor, VP and chief of staff for Lachman Consultant Services, has received an uptick in calls from businesses looking to get into the hand sanitizer industry, after Lachman released a condensed version of the FDA’s guidelines for production in layman’s terms.
“We saw sort of a progression from these companies saying, ‘Hey we want to do this just to help us get through Covid and just under the emergency use authorization,’” she said. Now she’s hearing that these same companies want to stay in the hand sanitizer business “because this isn’t something that’s going away.”
Christenson conducted thorough research and followed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) formula in order to safely produce hand sanitizer at her distillery. She also received help from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ online educational resources.
“We continue to supply large, large volumes of hand sanitizer, more than we ever dreamed we would continue to make,” she said. “It doesn’t show any signs of falling for us.”
Owner of Black Momma Vodka Vanessa Braxton has also started making hand sanitizer during the pandemic: “I never thought I would make hand sanitizer. That was never in my view until the pandemic,” she said.
Braxton’s company has a loyal customer base, with more than 60,000 online shoppers. She initially started making hand sanitizer after the American Distilling Institute requested she help supply the government and local community. Since then, Braxton has been closely following the WHO’s formula and is now registered with the FDA. She has also made it a priority to employ people in her local community and manufacture all of her products in the US.
“A lot of companies are making hand sanitizer but they’re not registering or getting a permit from the FDA to do it,” she said. “That’s how you make sure, too, that you’re providing a safe product.”
Since Black Momma Vodka has started producing hand sanitizer, the demand has skyrocketed. Braxton is now in the process of expanding her hand sanitizer line to include new scents like lavender, peach tree, sage, and lemon.
“We’re selling hand sanitizers night and day,” she said. “I’ve learned the industry and I’m now perfecting the formula and doing research.”
It is no secret that the expansion of the hand sanitizer industry has come with dangers. But it has also presented entrepreneurs with a new opportunity for growth at a time when many businesses are struggling to get by.
“I think that some of these recalls are going to weed out some of the players in the industry that are not conforming, and that the ones that are truly wanting to make the product according to the guidance are going to succeed,” O’Connor said.